In 2012, I was first exposed to the world of freelance strategy consultants while working for a-connect. I encountered a number of people who had opted out of traditional paths and for many different reasons (autonomy, flexibility, excitement) decided to work on their own.
At the time, I had a hunch this was a path I wanted to explore. I’ve always been someone with shifting interests and love pushing myself into new domains. By the nature of our current job market, we cling to traditional beliefs around job loyalty, time in role and grey-haired experience. I wanted to optimize for skills, learning and challenge. To many, doing the same thing over and over was “putting in your time,” but to me was the goal to avoid.
After having a couple more jobs which I continued to learn, develop confidence in my skills and gain more clarity over the type of work I wanted to do, I decided it was time to make the leap. Over the past year, I’ve learned a number of things and hope to offer a sort of playbook to help others make the same leap:
Part 1: Mentally Shift to a Freelance Mindset
1. Test your Commitment: In my career, I’ve often tested out next steps in my career by telling people what that next step might be and then judging both my reaction and theirs. For example, early in my career, I would tell people “I am trying to break into consulting.” As I said it, it felt like something I really wanted to do and others acted with support. Test out “I’m making the leap to become a freelance consultant.” If it doesn’t feel right, you may want to re-think your move. You also want to challenge yourself to become comfortable with uncertainty.
The question of “what if I can’t find a project” is inevitable and you will likely face this over and over as a consultant. If that lingering fear is going to overwhelm your ability to take action, this may not be the path for you.
2. Start building momentum: For me this meant reaching out to a number of friends and other connections that were currently freelance consultants. I had a number of great conversations and I asked them accounting, business and life questions. Some of the best advice I got is included here. You also want to start thinking about your network and identifying the supporters you have through family, colleagues and past jobs. People tend to dramatically underestimate the number of people that are rooting for them, so its good to start a list.
3. Learn about the freelance talent marketplace: I wrote a more detailed piece on the talent marketplaces, but you should start checking out and signing up for accounts on the different platforms. You can join platforms like Catalant, TalMix, PwC, and UpWork before you become a full-time freelancer. Others like a-connect, Umbrex, BTG, and Genioo require you to be on your own before joining. You may also want to see if you can win a small project on one of those platforms before you take the leap just to build additional momentum.
4. Assess Your “Future Of Work” Mindset: Jumping into the gig economy is not a straightforward transition. During this transition, many people develop a completely different mindset and perspective on work, income, money and how they live life. I’ve developed a future of work mindset assessment that looks at some of the different things you may not have expected (such as unplanned breaks, new definitions of success, how you think about creativity) that will help you get a baseline on where you are and the areas you need to reflect and be aware of during your transition.
5. Tame your fears: One of the biggest challenges in becoming a freelancer is the lack of structure relative to being employed full-time. When you are employed full-time, much more of your schedule is fixed and there is almost absolute certainty around income and costs. One exercise I have all people go through who are thinking about taking the leap is the fear setting exercise, which forces you to write down some of your worst fears in relation to finances and other fears of failure.
6. What if you run out of money?: Part of the fear setting exercise is to write down an income you would be comfortable with. For many people, this is the first time they think about income as something you need to continually earn instead of something that is fixed and comes in at a regular pace.
You can use the Boundless freelance target income calculator to determine what kind of income you need to make to support your lifestyle. When I went through this exercise, I became more aware of the link between my spending and the amount of income I needed to make in a way that enabled me to cut spending on things I didn’t value.
7. Set a timeline: For me, I set out as a freelancer to make this a minimum one-year commitment. I made a number of changes in my finances, including lowering my rent and changing some of my spending habits. Mentally I committed to a full-year no matter if I actually landed any work or not. I looked at the year as a real-world grad school. If I didn’t have things to work on, I would focus on building new skills and pushing myself personally. My initial due diligence convinced me I would land some work, but in my head, my “worst case scenario” was a year off of work to learn, reflect and grow.
In my experience three months is too short, six months is the bare minimum and at least 12 months is about right in order to align your behavior and committment with making it work.